A sense of place…

Descriptive writing has been given a bad name in recent years.  To the point that many self-proclaimed modern novelists have decided they may dispense with it.  Because what everyone wants, they insist, is a fast-paced story.  A thriller.  Something to grab the reader by the throat. 

Well, pardon me, but I don’t necessarily wish to be grabbed–by the throat or elsewhere.  Or smacked.  Or otherwise physically assaulted by strangers.  Or even by my friends. 

Call me picky if you will. 

Descriptive writing, these nouvelle know-alls of le dernier-cri proclaim, clogs the action, slows the reader down, it isn’t relevant, it doesn’t matter, it’s old-fashioned…

Well, since this is my blog, I shall give you my opinion on all that:  Poppycock! 

(Think, if you will, of Miss Haversham’s dining room in Great Expectations and tell me that isn’t powerful!)

Because descriptive writing is one of the writer’s greatest tools.  Done well, it can also be a writer’s most subtle art.  Well-written, well-chosen, well-considered descriptive writing about place can perform so many tasks…

First and foremost, of course, it is the ultimate magic phonebox for transporting the reader to the place of the novel’s action.  But also, by allowing the reader to see what the characters see, you have given him a hand up into understanding the character’s inner workings. 

A few other–perhaps minor but perhaps not–things which descriptive writing about place can offer are context; it can set atmosphere and tone; it positions the narrator; it sets the time or period without the author rigidly defining it; it can set broad themes…and not forgetting the poet’s favourite–it’s there for imagery. 

I personally love it. 

Though it isn’t always easy to write, or to write well.  But I do believe it offers as nothing else does the opportunity for the writer to invite the reader into the characters’ heads, allowing the reader to see and feel as do the characters and imagine themselves into the room, into that world.  

So there you have it. 

And in case you’re interested, this is where a couple of my characters are today.  (Nice?  Or perhaps not.)  Ha ha ha. 

A Public House by Paul Sandby, RA

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17 comments on “A sense of place…

  1. Put me in the “I love it!” camp, too. I know it’s a difficult balance to strike – too much bogs the reader down, too little and it’s the “White Room” syndrome – but it’s something vital to helping the reader feel more “there” with the characters.

    In my efforts not to go too heavily, it seems I’ve skimped in some moments, instead. This is going to be worked out shortly, but I take it as proof I didn’t need to hold back or ignore my instincts, after all.

    All I know is you struck an excellent balance in May 1812, and I’m sure you’ll do more of the same delicious scene-setting in the rest of your work for (I hope) years to come.

    I’ve got a shelf ready for you, just in case. 😉

    • M M Bennetts says:

      You are too kind. The next book is very…

      And yes, of course, one can go overboard…I think of James’s The Spoils of Poynton…and the claustrophobia he created through description but that was half the point there. Ditto Conrad’s A Heart of Darkness.

      And sometimes all it takes is a sentence or two…

      But I equally think that for many writers it’s a convenience to say it’s not necessary or it interrupts the punch of the action. Because writing good descriptive passages is very hard work and takes a not inconsiderable amount of skill and hard graft.

      And for the record, I rather liked visiting the Italy you showed me.

      • I can only agree with your point that there are many writers who simply wish to “skip” the task of describing. As you said, sometimes it only takes a sentence or two to convey the desired effect.

        As for the Italy I showed you, well, you are so kind, and I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of it, too!

  2. Rowenna says:

    Wonderful post–and I’m in your camp 🙂 What I don’t understand is the assertion that description doesn’t do anything but “give the weather.” Well, I suppose poorly used description might do little to advance the story. But properly used description isn’t simply scene setting, as you say–it reveals themes and shows character, develops concepts that will return in the plot, may even introduce recurring metaphors or symbolism.

    Not to mention that half the point of reading is to savor the words, the other half to turn the page to keep the story going. It’s balance, a balance that the “grab the throat” writing camp swings in a direction too far away from savoring for my tastes.

  3. Toby Neal says:

    Thriller writer that I am, I love a good description. I just have to keep it to fewer and thus more potent (think cognac vs wine) words. I feel indulgent and excited if I get to do a whole paragraph of description, even throw in some adverbs. Perhaps that’s why my agent(!!) just told me she can’t ‘visualize’ my MC and needs a clearer picture?
    Rewriting now!
    Anyway I appreciate this perspective and as always, “poppycock” is good in any language.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      The thing about your work though is that Hawaii is such a unique setting that we’re all craving more description–and because you’re writing thrillers, you can sprinkle the ‘clues’ through the descriptions, because that’s what your MC would be looking for and we can pay attention or not…exceedingly clever, methinks.

  4. Mignon Fahr says:

    Summer before Katrina, I attended a poetry workshop entitled Sense of Place in an artist’s colony rural mini-wilderness. (Everywhere in LA is soon a mini-wilderness if left alone long enough.) There were boardwalks throughout the ‘jungle’. Everyone endeavored to remember a ‘certain place’ in their lives to write about. This place, Nine Mile Point, was so intense sensorially, my memories went blank. What I learned there was that elemental sound was a sense oft ignored but which there was a multitude of characters.

  5. Hmmm. Well I sort-of agree with both camps, here.

    The pace-junkies are right, to a degree. If you’re in action on a battlefield, you’d see the dead , but you probably wouldn’t notice what colour uniforms they wore or the extent of their injuries. Because you’d be more concerned about whether the dragoon galloping towards you through the cannon-smoke wants to embrace you or kill you; that your horse doesn’t put it’s feet in a shell hole, or the million-and-one other hazards that can make the difference between life and death. Adrenaline concentrates the mind and blurs unimportant detail.

    But if you were wandering relaxed through a town behind the front line, that’s a completely different matter. Then you (should be able to) really SEE. And hear. And smell.

    So pace kills description, in my view. That’s real life. And that’s how it should be – think how much detail you don’t notice during a cross-country round compared to the course-walk.

    Or maybe it’s just that my specs need a good clean…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I would agree. There is a place for description and a place where adrenaline should and does rule the day. But it does have its proper place, and if done well, the reader will carry that sense of time, the imagery, the ‘sensual’ information from the slower passages where it is included into the battlefield scenes. And it is important probably in those scenes to point out that nobody really saw anything after the first half-hour–the smoke was such that you saw nothing. Same on board ship during battles. You couldn’t see a thing for the cannon smoke.

  6. gretavdr says:

    I write science fiction and historical fiction. Both genres REQUIRE (note capitals) description because without them the reader cannot put themselves in the time and place. And also, you have to ‘see’ the location from your character’s POV. Picturesque for us may very well be incredibly dangerous for them. But yes, I know I’ve skipped through several paragraphs of beautifully written description because I wanted to know what was happening. And SF, like thrillers, these days demands unremitting action. A difficult balance.

    • Piotr says:

      I’m with Greta here, and with you Mr Bennetts 🙂 descriptive writing is an essential part, showing the reader what the characters see. I have read an award winning novel that had no descriptive writing whatsoever, and it drove me batty. The story’s concept was fantastic, but the way it was delivered sucked eggs. Then too much descriptive writing, especially with all that techno-babble,…. *shivers*

  7. ‘And it is important probably in those scenes to point out that nobody really saw anything after the first half-hour–the smoke was such that you saw nothing.’

    Im soooo glad you said that…. means my Vimeiro was reasonably realistic. I think.

    Apart from Joshua Lock meeting up with Loison, of course. Hey – artistic licence!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      They fired off all the guns of the Victory for the, er, select few, during a weekend conference on Trafalgar. After the first five minutes, you couldn’t see a thing. On the battlefield or at sea, the effect was the same–total fog. Allegedly the brightly coloured jackets of the uniforms were a help against friendly fire. Er, sort of. A little. Maybe, if you were lucky. And you would have been deafened too.

  8. Now that would have been worth seeing (well, peering at through the fog) – Victory firing a broadside, I mean.

    And there must have been hundreds of ‘friendly fire’ incidents never reported, perhaps because it was so common as to be unremarkable.

  9. junebugger says:

    Outstanding post! Yes, all that advice people preach, about putting aside descriptive writing IS poppy-cock!!!! My favorite authors are those who are able to write great descriptions of the atmosphere, of the people. It is what draws me into the story’s world.

  10. Marvin says:

    Description is important, no matter the genre, period. Am poor in description, but I’m trying to be better. Am a newbie. This was a great post. Am glad I came across it.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Marvin, so glad you enjoyed the post. One of the best lessons I ever had in descriptive writing actually came from the gardener and painter, Gertrude Jekyll, who urged one to see what was really there, rather than what one thought should be there. Hence, looking at the bark of a tree, one expects to see brown bark, but she pointed out that depending on the tree, it might be mottled grey and black and tan and stained with white mold even…And that art of seeing is the first and most vital step to good description. Cheers–MM

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